As a general rule of thumb in hockey, you never want the GM to pop his head into the locker room after practice and ask if he can see you for a second.
It’s the moment you always hear about, but you never think it’ll happen to you. But in February 2011, I was in my 11th season with the Senators when it happened to me. We were on a road trip in Calgary, and just as I was getting changed after practice, Bryan Murray popped into the room and said, “Hey Fish, can I see you for a second?”
I guess my heart should’ve skipped a beat because we had lost something like 11 straight, and there were rumors about me getting traded, but to be honest I had no idea what was about to happen.
I followed Bryan outside the locker room, and he said, “Well, Fish, I’ve traded ya.”
I mean, in that moment … holy cow. You know it’s always a possibility. You know it’s part of the business. But when you hear those words, it’s just complete shock. Especially in hockey, some of your teammates are like family. In the split second after he said, “I’ve traded ya,” I was thinking about having to say goodbye to guys I had spent almost every single day with for 10 years — a lot of great friends and teammates.
I don’t use the word family lightly. Chris Neil was like a brother to me. When we first got to Ottawa as young guys — kids, really — we lived together out on a farm for three years with a few other friends. You can just imagine four guys in their early 20s out on a farmhouse in Ottawa. We fought like brothers, bickered like brothers, but we also really loved one another like brothers.
Of course, when guys are traded, you say you’re going to stay in touch, and you try to text them and get together during the summer, but it’s never quite the same.
We’re so fortunate to play a game for a living, and you always know you can be moved, but it’s pretty jarring to have your entire life and your entire family change in a split second. I was pretty crushed.
I think all I could muster to Bryan in response was, “O.K.”
But then Bryan said something that changed my life completely. For the better.
“I’ve got some good news for you, though.” he said. “You’re going to Nashville.”
Oh my goodness. Talk about some life-changing words. I could have been going to 28 other cities, but I was actually going to Nashville, where I could finally be with my wife full-time.
Carrie and I had gotten married the previous July, and because she’s a country music singer, she has to be doing her thing in Nashville for most of the year. So we had been going back and forth between Ottawa and Nashville. As a newlywed couple, it wasn’t easy.
I knew I was incredibly blessed to be going to Nashville. When I was packing up my stuff to go to the airport, I got a call from Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the Senators. He thanked me for my time in Ottawa, and then he said something I will never, never forget.
He said, “You know Fish, I just wanted you to be with your wife.”
When trade talks had heated up, a few teams had been interested in me, but Eugene and Bryan agreed to make sure that my destination would be Nashville. They could have traded me anywhere, but they were genuinely looking out for me and my family. That’s what makes hockey such a special sport, even at the NHL level. Yes, it’s a business, but the amount of good human beings I’ve run across in this sport is just incredible.
Obviously, the reality set in pretty quickly. I had to hop a flight to Ottawa to grab my suits and whatever else I could pack up, then a flight to Nashville to play the next night.
I was 30 years old and walking into a new locker room in a new conference. I knew a few players, but it was funny because the first few days I was there, I kept mixing up all the young guys’ names. So for a while, everybody was Bud.
Over the years, I eventually found my place on the team and met a bunch of guys who became like a new family. And being in a stable situation in Nashville allowed Carrie and I to start our own family. Our son, Isaiah, was born last February. He doesn’t really understand what Daddy does yet, but if my good friend Matt Cullen’s kids are any indication, he’s going to be a huge hockey fan.
And that’s really been the coolest part about being here. The hockey culture in Nashville has grown so much in the last few years. We haven’t raised a Cup, but we’ve had some really fun runs in the playoffs. The culmination of that, to me, was the triple-OT game against the Sharks at home last May.
That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had, and the most tired I’ve ever been, on a sheet of ice. Just for some perspective, we had beaten the Ducks in seven very physical games in the first round. Nobody had picked us to beat them. But Pekka Rinne stood on his head with 36 saves in Game 7, and we moved on.
Our reward was another West Coast series against San Jose. Any playoff series is going to be grueling, but flying 2,200 miles back and forth like that just adds another level to it. It was such an unbelievable series. They won the first two at the Shark Tank. Then we won Game 3 back home. We knew we had to even the series in Game 4 before going back out West.
That whole game was wild. It was back and forth the whole way. We’d score, then they’d tie it up. In the first OT, we hit the post, and then they had a goal waved off for goalie interference. In the second OT, Pekka made an incredible save on Tomáš Hertl to keep us alive. My emotions were all over the place.
At around 1 a.m., we came into the locker room after the second overtime, and our trainers started wheeling in all these trays of oranges and bananas and protein bars. Guys were panting, trying to catch their breath and eat at the same time before we had to go back out there. Everybody was hurting. I was cramping up and I never cramp. At times like that, you’re looking for anything to give you a shot of adrenaline to keep pushing. Sometimes it’s a guy standing up and giving a quick speech, but everyone was so tired that they were sitting there just trying to hydrate and get ready for another grueling overtime period.
But our fans carried us. I’ll never forget it. There’s this spot at the Bridgestone Arena where the fans can stand behind a rope and give us fist-bumps as we walk down the tunnel. They’re right there, and it’s always cool. But this time, we were walking out and triple the usual number of fans were packed into that space, and they were going absolutely nuts.
I mean, nuts.
I can’t even describe the passion. You had to see their faces. It was like they were collectively willing us to get that goal. It was the adrenaline shot for us. When we got to the bench, everybody just looked at each other like, Man, we gotta do this for them.
Halfway through the overtime, I was on the ice when a shot from the point rebounded off San Jose’s goalie, and I found the puck at my feet right in front of the goal.
When I put it in the net, the whole building erupted like I’d never heard before. You would think I would’ve been on cloud nine, but it’s funny — the game was such an emotional roller coaster that all I felt when the guys were jumping on me in the corner was a sense of relief.
Sure, I know some people might be reading this and saying, Yeah, but you guys ended up losing in seven.
That’s true, and it was incredibly disappointing. But years from now, I’ll still remember walking out of that tunnel at one in the morning, and seeing our fans going totally crazy. It felt like hockey had reached another level in this city. People who had never seen a hockey game in their lives got invested in us during that run, and I’ll always be proud of that.
You know, it’s interesting, because this game always surprises you. You can never get too comfortable. This summer, I was laying on the couch at our house in Nashville with Carrie and Isaiah. Our whole family was sick. So, so sick. We were laying there just being miserable together, and all of a sudden my phone vibrated. It was our coach, Peter Laviolette, and when I picked up….
Once again, holy cow.
“Hey, Fish,” he said. “I wanted to let you know, we’ve traded Shea for P.K. Subban.”
I was just as shocked as the rest of the world. Shea was our captain. But more than the hockey stuff, he was always such a good guy to me. I couldn’t believe it. You know when you’re really sick, and everything seems kind of like a dream? That’s what it felt like. Next thing I know, the news was all over Twitter. It was probably the biggest hockey trade of the last 10 years, and it just so happened to touch our room.
Later on in the summer, I met with Peter, and he asked if I would take over as captain for Shea.
Of course I said yes. (You can’t really say no, right?)
I don’t think it really hit me until the drive home what it meant. This is my 17th year in the league. I never thought I would have the opportunity to be a captain. When you get traded to a new team, especially when you’re struggling like I was at the time, you never know how you’ll fit in. Now, after more than 1,000 games and 18 years in this league, I still feel grateful that I get to do what I love to do — play this great game of hockey.
Hopefully I can keep playing long enough for my son to watch me and really understand the game, and what it means for me to wear the C in Nashville. I don’t know, though. He’s only 21 months old, so I’m going to have to figure out what kind of training regimen Jagr is on.
Quick little story before I go.
I didn’t know this until later on, but a full two weeks before I was traded to Nashville, my mom and dad were talking in the kitchen one night, and like I said, we were struggling. I wasn’t having a good season, but my mom — always the voice of reason in our house — called it.
“Well,” she said. “Maybe this is the Lord’s way of having Mike traded to Nashville so he can be with Carrie.”
I know God was looking out for me that day, and sometimes he uses good people like Eugene and Bryan to carry out his plans. So I’ll just take the time now to thank all three of them for the one-way ticket.